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Yuval Levin joins the show to discuss how the left and right alike respond with populist anger at our institutions that seem to be failing the American people.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a senior editor of The New Atlantis, and a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard. He has been a member of the White House domestic policy staff (under President George W. Bush), executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and a congressional staffer. His essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and others, and he is the author, most recently, of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. He holds a BA from American University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.

Yuval Levin argues that we do not need to tear down our current institutions and restart from nothing, but it is definitely a time to re‐​commit to make our institutions trustworthy once again. And by institutions he means from the military to church groups and everything in between. He argues that we can then use these trustworthy institutions to provide the form and structure we need to really be free.

What counts as a institution? Is there a decline in the public trust of institutions? Are institutions failing across the board? When is distrusting an institution a good thing? Should we work to make institutions more trustworthy?

Further Reading:



00:06 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: It seems like American society is increasingly partisan, tribal, angry and lonely. A cottage industry sprung up offering explanations for this, from secularization to social media to declining trust in experts to changes in the make‐​up of the economy. Yuval Levin, our guest today, has his own theory about where to place the blame, namely with America’s institutions. They’re broken and no longer fulfilling their purpose, no longer fulfilling the central role in our lives they ought to. Levin isn’t just concerned about government institutions, but also religious, academic and professional.

00:43 Trevor Burrus: Over the next hour we discuss just what institutions are and examine what role they play in forming us as people. We debate the relationship between institutions and the individuals and that is so much a part of not just libertarianism but the American experience. And we raise questions about whether it’s in fact good that we also need to be a bit more skeptical about traditional institutions and their claimed authority.

01:04 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Yuval Levin, director of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Issues at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs. His new book is A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. Welcome back to the show.

01:22 Yuval Levin: Thank you very much for having me.

01:24 Aaron Ross Powell: What’s an institution?

01:26 Yuval Levin: Well, obviously, that turns out to be a very complicated question, and if you dig into the academic literature on that, you will never come out again. I think an institution, I think institutions are the forms of our common life. They are the shapes and structures of the things we do together and so, in a sense, institutions are clumps of people, but they’re not just clumps, and the structures they have, the shapes they have matter a lot. Some institutions are, of course, formal, corporate institutions, like companies or schools or hospitals, a unit of the military, a political institution; some are much less formal and corporate, but our central institutions like the family, like a profession, these are not quite as shaped by law, but they are essential to the functioning of our society, and ultimately institutions are how we do what we do together.

02:25 Trevor Burrus: Is there… Are these different than civil society which is something you hear a lot of people reference?

02:29 Yuval Levin: Well, I think civil society is a way of talking about a sector of our social life; institutions are what you find in civil society, they’re what you find in society in general. I think civil society institutions tend to be more voluntary, they tend to be more bottom‐​up, they tend to be smaller, but they are institutions, certainly.

02:46 Trevor Burrus: But also, as you discussed, Congress is an institution and that’s not civil society. That’s a very uncivil society, actually.

02:51 Yuval Levin: That’s not civil society. Yeah. And also, you know, corporations, large and small, some of those might count in civil society, some not. I think institutions ultimately are important for giving form and structure for what we do together, whether that’s in civil society or whether that’s in politics.

03:08 Trevor Burrus: Was this… Was like de Tocqueville and there’s a lot of discussion, for example, of the kind of collaborative forms of American life, but this idea of institutions, I think in the last, I don’t know, maybe 30 years, you’ve heard more and more about economists who’ve written about institutions.

03:24 Yuval Levin: Yes, absolutely.

03:25 Trevor Burrus: But it also seems like you ought to… We didn’t actively maintain them. I don’t know how much we talked about them in the ‘20s. They just seemed like a way of being or I would say the 1820s, right?

03:33 Yuval Levin: Well, that’s partly true. I would say there’s definitely been a turn back toward institutionalism in the social sciences in the last 30 years. And that followed a turn away from institutionalism in the social sciences. Political science, sociology, even economics in the first half of the 20th century was very focused on institutions. I think part of what happened in the second half of the 20th century was a recognition of the limits of that way of thinking. And so, a turn toward various kinds, from postmodernism and sociology and political science, to ways of thinking in economics about incentives and motivations that began as a way to push against an excessive institutionalism but by now I think are ways of informing a deeper institutionalism, what’s called the new institutionalism, particularly in sociology, but there’s some of that in economics too, I think is a way of thinking about institutions that’s informed by people’s motivations, by things like power relationships, the sorts of things that those dissenters discovered in the social sciences. So we’re in another institutionalist age in the social sciences. It’s not the first one, but it’s certainly a change from where we were.

04:46 Aaron Ross Powell: What’s the relationship between institutions and I guess, length of time or tradition? Because we’re… If institutions are us getting together and doing things together, that can be, those can be constantly forming and reforming and new ones can be coming in and we… All of us do this all the time, but it seems like the institutions that you talk about and when we talk about institutions, there’s more of a weightiness that comes from these things have been around for a while.

05:14 Yuval Levin: Of course.

05:14 Trevor Burrus: Obviously, so, yeah, on that point I had a specific question too on that. Like, is Burning Man an institution? Is it too narrow, is it about that? Yeah, is it…

05:20 Yuval Levin: Well, yeah, give it a little more time and it is. I would say institutions are durable forms. They are the way I define it in the book is they’re durable forms of our common life. And what that means is that they do have an existence over time. They’re not just pop‐​up things; they endure long enough to shape our perception of some portion of our experience. That doesn’t mean they have to be ancient or that they have to be even traditional exactly but I think it does mean that they’re not just there to serve one temporary purpose and go away. They really are there to form something about the way we live together in our society, and so I do think institutions are connected to tradition in some respect or at least that they endure long enough to give us a sense that they give shape to some part of our life.

06:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a worry then that if we are… Institutions are formative of us, as you argue in the book, and to some extent the value I think that gets placed in them is their degree of unchosen‐​ness. Like, we didn’t…

06:26 Yuval Levin: Some of them, yes, that’s true.

06:27 Aaron Ross Powell: But they’re… We’re kind of compelled to be part of them or we didn’t choose to be part of them and then they provide a structure that we have to learn to operate within and we learn… We gain from that, and so, if this durable‐​ness, which requires them to have been around for a little while, as you said Burning Man, if it was around for a while longer, it might become one. Do we risk essentially being slaves to the tastes and cultures and mores of the past?

06:51 Yuval Levin: Well, here, that… It’s a great question because it gets us right to the way in which I am a conservative and not exactly a libertarian. I don’t think all institutions are unchosen or that they have to be unchosen. Many of the most important institution in our lives are certainly chosen and are important because of that, but it does seem to me that we can easily overvalue choice in thinking about how we live our lives and how legitimacy is derived, and many of the most legitimate institutions in our lives are not chosen, from the family, which at least to begin with is not a chosen institution for a rising generation, to the institutions of our society that we’re born into and whether we like it or not, we can do something about them, we can reform them and change them and help them address changing circumstances.

07:42 Yuval Levin: We don’t exactly choose them, and I do think that a lot of the most important institutions in our lives matter as much as they do because they are not functions of our choice, but they help us understand the environment, the situation in which we live. And so, yes, there’s no question that living in a human society means in part being slaves to the preferences of prior generations. It also means in part enslaving future generations to our own preferences, that’s true too. We don’t begin life by choosing, but I think that ultimately living in a free society means that you do in important ways live life by choosing and in doing that you reform some of the institutions you’re part of, you can change that society you inherited, but inheritance is not a choice, that’s true.

08:28 Trevor Burrus: So what’s wrong with institutions today?

08:31 Yuval Levin: Well, I think you’d have to say that when you think about the kind of social challenges that Americans are living through, and this is a time when it seems like we are facing serious social challenges, you can see it in our politics, you can see it in some of the dysfunctions we find in various parts of our society, I think they have a lot to do with institutional dysfunctions. The public has lost confidence in institutions over a period of decades, which ought to tell us something, and one of the ways I try to get at this in the book is to look beyond familiar forms of corruption, which certainly are common in our time, they’re common in every time, corruption being really a way that people use institutional power to advance their own needs and wants and priorities over others in illegitimate ways, that certainly happens a lot in our society. But I think another thing we see now that’s distinct of our time is that we see a form of institutional dysfunction in which people who ought to be insiders in our institutions, people with responsibility and obligations who should be molded by the institutions they are a part of, instead think of those institutions as platforms for themselves as ways of being seen, as ways of being noticed, of gaining prominence.

09:43 Yuval Levin: And so you find this, for example, in our political institutions, it’s very prominent where members of Congress, many of the younger members in particular now think of Congress as a platform, as a way to elevate their profile and to perform for an audience in really an almost theatrical way. If you think about what happens in your average Congressional Committee hearing, it’s basically a bunch of people creating YouTube clips and it has fairly little to do with legislation or with the traditional work of a member of a legislature, it has much more to do with the work of a kind of public performance.

10:18 Yuval Levin: If you look at what President Trump does a lot of the time, it’s basically standing on top of the presidency and performing and speaking at it or speaking from on top of it. And so he’ll tweet about something he doesn’t like about the Department of Justice and you think, “Well, the Department of Justice works for you. It seems to me that you might call them.” But that performance, that expression of outrage is how he understands his role in the presidency. I think in different ways you see this in a lot of other institutions in American life, in the professions, in the academy, in the media, and I think that has to do with a decline of public trust in institutions, because ultimately we trust an institution when we think that it is forming people who are trustworthy to carry out an important task in our society or meet some need or want we have. And when they don’t… When institutions don’t play those formative roles, they become much harder to trust and they give us fewer objects for loyalty and commitment and devotion, fewer sources of legitimacy, so I think that failure has to do with what’s gone wrong in our society.

11:23 Aaron Ross Powell: On the institutions as platforms issue, and so take Congress, for example, so that the version of it that you just told is that Congresspeople are kind of more interested in promoting their own personal brand over the business of legislating or at least legislating well. But I can imagine an alternate explanation for it, which is that the purpose of Congress, the reason that people get elected to Congress, what they want to accomplish there is to move public policy in a direction that aligns with the desires of the people who voted them into office. And in a world where most people get most of their information online in short clips, if you wanna move public opinion, you wanna galvanize public opinion, you wanna get your voters engaged, which is how you then swing what happens in Congress, you do that kind of stuff because… So it’s less of a “I’m not using Congress to do what I ought to be doing, I’m using it for me,” and more of, “The circumstances of change such that the strategy and tactics that best accomplish what I’ve been brought here to do look like in this way promoting my personal brand.”

12:42 Yuval Levin: Well, the trouble is that Congress has an actual role to play in our system of government. Congress creates the frameworks by making laws, creates the frameworks within which the executive then operates and which the judiciary can then review, and so if we replace what Congress does with a kind of political performance art and simply think of Congress as another place to express views, then I think we’ve lost the basic function of the institution. There are a lot of places where people can express their opinion and to try to mold public views. Certainly, Congress is one of those places, but the institution has another purpose, has another role to play, and when the expression and the kind of performance art side of politics comes to entirely overtake its distinct function as an institution, then I think we’ve lost an important piece of our constitutional system.

13:35 Yuval Levin: And that’s part of what we see again in the presidency, in some ways, though I think lesser ways for now we see it in the judiciary also, it’s what’s happened to the political parties which have a real role to play in our system in channeling views and creating coalitions, but the political parties also now are just platforms. They’re just places where narcissists stand and talk. And if everything becomes a platform then our distinct institutions are not performing their distinct roles. We’ve never had a Congress that doesn’t have people in it who are just making a lot of noise and grandstanding. Certainly, that’s part of politics, but I think when that’s all that happens in Congress then we’ve lost something very important about what that institution is supposed to do for us.

14:19 Trevor Burrus: So how do you see the causal chain working here? Because as you point out in the book, I think, well, the mid ‘70s might have been a kind of high watermark for least institutional trust and polling it leads too. And now Congress rates somewhere between like diptheria and the Black Death on approval ratings. Is it that… You have media, a big media environment without direct connections, YouTube, for example, so people’s trust is high and then you start getting splintering of media environment so then maybe some more right‐​wing people go to Fox News and grandstand on Fox News, which makes people just look at Congress as a bunch of grandstanders. Then their opportunities for that get bigger and bigger and bigger in that sort of… And that’s how the causal chain kind of worked? Or did they start grandstanding for maybe other reasons? I mean, was the partisan politics underlying it the first causal chain, as opposed to the grandstanding?

15:11 Yuval Levin: Yeah, it’s a great question and I think the answer, the correct answer is a cop‐​out, which is to say yes, there’s a cycle here, but it seems to me also that we should be careful about what we consider to be the norm of American trust in institutions, because we tend to compare today to the post‐​World War II period. When the United State… Americans had a very unusually high level of trust in institutions after World War II. All of our institutions, there was this sense that a big government with big business and big labor could just run the country. That’s not the norm for America. Our situation, in some ways, is more like the norm. If you checked in on America in the 19th century, even putting aside the terrible 1860s, approval ratings for Congress would have been in the ditch and the sense that our institutions were strong and great would not have been that strong.

16:10 Yuval Levin: So I do think that this is an American situation, it’s not entirely unprecedented, but there’s certainly a way in which the extreme cohesion of the post‐​war era began to give way to a more fragmented form of America, in some ways a more free form of America and that fragmentation was a liberalization that had a lot of good sides to it, but it also has meant less cohesion, less self‐​confidence and less confidence in institutions. And I think it has interacted with certain changes in our culture and also technological changes that have given it this particular form where grandstanding is really at the center of what our institutions seem to do, and it’s a kind of grandstanding that can find its distinct audience niches in a way that technologies now allow it to do. I think that exacerbates these problems in ways that we have to take seriously. The problems are never gonna go away, but I think we can do a lot better at having coherent functional institutions that have a purpose beyond grandstanding platforms for the people within them and that we can do that by seeing the problem in these institutional terms to begin with.

17:17 Trevor Burrus: Do you think this is… Is there… What’s the relationship, I guess, between… So the schismatism, the schismatic era, like partisanship in America is a big… At least commented upon issue and it seems to be a big problem if our politics are gonna be national. But for me, it’s always seemed to be the case that as cultural divide moves… Spreads people from just being very different… Living very different lives, every election seems to be an existential threat to like, you know, the next election. If we lose this, this is the end of America and that’s… Rhetoric is sort of ramped up. And then you… Therefore, it kind of creates a ecosystem for people to really bang that drum from a grandstanding situation. But the underlying cause might be over‐​nationalization of our politics as opposed to…

18:03 Yuval Levin: Well, I certainly agree with that. I think that the over‐​nationalization of our politics is a major source of the problem we have and that more localism and more subsidiarity could help us some, including could help us make some of our core institutions much more functional by giving them more of a role to play in addressing problems people have. But I would also say that I think that the way that that’s played out, the fact that it’s turned some of our institutions from places that perform core functions and also can be used for grandstanding to places that are about grandstanding has meant that our politics has… That our politics is always operating at this fever pitch where each party’s priority is that the other party not win. That’s basically what they’re all about now.

18:51 Yuval Levin: They’re not offering the public much in the way of an alternative set of ideas and solutions. Even when they talk about public policy, what often is going on is really a kind of signaling about affiliation and party so that when Democrats say Medicare for all, they’re not exactly talking about a public program. It doesn’t really make sense that way. It’s not even obvious what problem exactly would be solved by such a thing. What they’re saying is, “We’re not them, we’re us.” And Republicans talk that way about their own issues, so that I think our politics now is at a place where every election is presented as a fight to the death, because a victory by the other side would mean death, and grandstanding is how that happens. That’s the politics of grandstanding. I think that’s, in part, a result of the dysfunction of Congress especially and of other institutions, and of course, it also drives that further. It exacerbates it.

19:53 Aaron Ross Powell: You had a little while back mentioned, just in passing, that… So we’ve talked about there’s problems of institutions, but I think the problems of institutions, in large part, the reason that they are problems for the rest of us is because of the effect that this decline in institutions has on America. Otherwise, we could just ignore the bad institutions. So what are those problems? Because there’s a lot of kind of ills that people diagnosed but what are the specific ones that you see as the result of the declining institutions?

20:26 Yuval Levin: Well, I think that when we think now about the kinds of challenges our society faces, we incline to language that is about a kind of crisis of sociality. We talk about alienation, isolation, loneliness. When you look at some of the factors that underlie the opioid crisis or political polarization, they seem to revolve around this set of issues where people feel separated and unconnected. One way to think about how to address that is just to help people build more connections. So we have in our minds often a picture of American life as a big open space full of people, and those people now are having trouble kind of holding hands, and so we need to build bridges or we need to break down walls or we need to have some kind of unifying vision that might bring us together. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think that if American life is one big open space, it’s not quite a space filled with individuals. It is a space filled with institutions and our failures of affiliation and connection and the crisis of legitimacy that seems to be shaping our politics now in a populist direction, I think is the function of failures of institutions at a lot of different levels.

21:40 Yuval Levin: Failing to give people something to belong to, failing to give people ways of achieving status and prominence that don’t involve this kind of political performance art. Failing to give people ways to solve practical problems together, these kinds of failures lead people to alienation, to a sense that this society doesn’t work for them, maybe it works for other people but not for them. I think by seeing that problem in terms of institutions, in part, right, it’s not all that it is, but it’s the part that we tend to miss, that we tend to treat as invisible and so to ignore. I think by making that more visible, we can see our way to some practical ways forward that otherwise might not be apparent.

22:24 Aaron Ross Powell: So that… Those kinds of problems, alienation, the debts of despair as they’re called, some of the economic issues, the sense of disconnectness, the loneliness, all of that. One of the things I notice when those issues get critiqued is that it seems like they’re not uniform geographically. They’re highly concentrated among certain parts of the population, largely working class, rust belt, which… And then in the popular narrative, the areas where we have the least institutional connection, where we have the most rampant individualism are the urban areas, the millennials who they don’t attend church, they’re not part of civic organizations and so on. But…

23:14 S?: They’re not married.

23:15 Aaron Ross Powell: They’re not married, but compared to the people who live in the areas where there are more of those institutions, they seem to be doing pretty well. So if it’s a decline in institutions and kind of a rise in individualism defined as “I’m gonna self‐​author and not be part of these things,” why don’t we see those problems more concentrated in the kind of elite liberal enclaves?

23:43 Yuval Levin: Well, in some sense we do. It seems to me that people who tend to live in those enclaves have more capital to burn, and not just financial capital but social capital too. They start from a stronger place, generally with stronger families but also they have more connection to school and work, to people around them in various ways. It’s true they’re not getting married at very high levels. That’s also the case in those working class areas. It’s true they’re not having as many children as prior generations had in their situation, but again, that’s true in the areas that we think of as more failing. So I think that these failures of institutions are happening across the board in American life, they’re showing up as bigger problems in places that start out weaker. And so, in that sense I think this concept of social capital can matter a lot. Institutions are one of the ways that we build social capital.

24:38 Yuval Levin: We have a lot of ways of spending social capital in contemporary American life. I think we don’t have enough ways of building it. And if we ask ourselves how do you amass social capital, the answer to that is a very institutional answer. It’s by having ways and forms and structures by which to connect to other people, to network with them, to benefit from your relationships with them, and that’s part of what institutions do for us. So I think in thinking about the problems that we describe to ourselves as shortages of social capital, we’re also talking about institutional dysfunction.

25:06 Trevor Burrus: It seems that this is not just a libertarian critique but it would definitely tie into that that there are some institutions that it’s good to trust that we trust less now.

25:06 Yuval Levin: Yes, I agree with that.

25:06 Trevor Burrus: And that there was… We had this centralizing force, Walter Cronkite and FM 3 networks and those kind of things and that might have helped us get into Vietnam and also, just trusting the media or at least get us embroiled in Vietnam as we did, so distrusting the media is probably a good idea. Distrusting Congress is like, libertarians aren’t going to be like, “Wow, you really should… Start trusting your Congressman,” kind of thing. Public schools, you know…

25:49 Aaron Ross Powell: The police.

25:50 Yuval Levin: The police, like these things where it’s… The shattered media environment has let people… Has covered stories that wouldn’t have been covered by Walter Cronkite. So yes, it’s good to know how much black men fear police in a way that we didn’t know in 1935 so we don’t trust that institution anymore. So sometimes it’s a good thing.

26:09 Yuval Levin: Absolutely. The argument of the book is not that we should just trust our institutions. The argument of the book is that we should work to make them more trustworthy. And so, what it really means to trust an institution is to believe that it forms the people within it to be worthy of trust, to be reliable. Different institutions do that in different ways, but they do it by forming a certain kind of human type, right? And so, if you think about what a profession does for you, for example, what it does for you is it gives you a process by which you can prove to the larger society that what you’re doing is reliable and trustworthy. And so, the weakening, the failure of that institution makes it harder for you to demonstrate that and tends to lead to public mistrust.

26:50 Yuval Levin: Now, the public shouldn’t just trust people with power, that’s not democracy, that’s not a good idea. People abuse power. Human beings tend to be corrupt and power tends to corrupt us further. So I think there have to be ways to help us have the right kind of skepticism about power. But that’s part of what functional institutions actually do for us. That’s what the scientific method does for us. When we think about what scientists do, that’s what journalistic ethics do for us and it’s what a commitment to a certain ethic, a certain standard in all of our different institutions can do for us if it’s taken seriously, so that I think that the waning of those kinds of commitments to standards and ethics within our various institutions tend to undermine our ability to trust them.

27:40 Yuval Levin: What I’m arguing for are ways of helping those institutions become more worthy of trust, not just that people should have more trust in Congress. Congress as it is now does not deserve to be trusted and I don’t trust it. When those opinion polls say that 9% of the public trust Congress, I’m not in that 9%. I don’t know who is or why. So…

28:00 Trevor Burrus: People in the family.

28:01 Yuval Levin: Yeah, it’s friends and family, right, and a few lobbyists. So yeah, I’m not suggesting that we simply should trust our institutions as they are, nor am I suggesting that the place where we wanna get to is 100% trust in institutions. That’s not a functional society. But I think we’ve gone too far in a direction of accepting a circumstance of untrustworthy institutions and that we can do something to make that a little better.

28:27 Aaron Ross Powell: On rebuilding them, though, especially if we’re framing institutions as formative and as having an ethical component, that part of a well‐​functioning institutions is that when you… They make you a better person and they help you, they enable you to kinda live well to a greater capacity, but one of the things that it seems has come out of the last however many years is that Americans, maybe I’m wrong about this, but it certainly it feels this way, at a fundamental level, quite a lot of Americans just don’t share a common conception of the good life. They have very different ideas. And if that’s the case, then how do we build institutions that are trustworthy and widely trustworthy and that we want to engage with without them kind of necessarily excluding conceptions of the good?

29:19 Yuval Levin: Well, look, I don’t think that all functional institutions have to be national, for one thing, I think most are not, especially in a country as vast as ours. There are a lot of institutions that can function as ways of instantiating in the world, different views of what the good life is for different people. That’s one way to answer that question. The other is that those institutions that we do need to be national can make a lot of room for differences about fundamental questions even of the good life. I think this is a liberal society and I think that’s a good thing and that the institutions of self‐​government in a liberal society are institutions that create spaces where people can flourish in different ways. And so, dysfunction in those institutions makes that harder and creates a kind of dysfunction in liberalism itself.

30:10 Yuval Levin: So I… Certainly, there are going to be institutions that are committed to an idea of the good life and therefore are exclusive of people who don’t share that commitment. That’s what it is to be a diverse society. It’s not that we have no views about good and bad, it’s that we have different views and people kind of clump around those different views and build institutions that allow them to live in the ways that they choose to and think are right. So I think the weakening of our institutions makes it harder for us to have this functional liberal society, not that stronger institutions would mean we’re a less liberal society.

30:45 Trevor Burrus: You don’t seem terribly a big fan of social media in the book and…

30:50 Yuval Levin: This is true.

30:51 Aaron Ross Powell: Are you on Twitter?

30:53 Yuval Levin: I’m not on Twitter. No.

30:54 Trevor Burrus: It’s a good way to become not much of a fan of social media because… Aaron’s on Twitter much more, but do you think there is… What’s the role here, but also, I mean, we’re in the infancy of social media. They’re trying to remind us [31:07] ____ all the time like, they’re… And the digital… The digital natives and the term that we use have… View online communities as real things and they… And I, even me, I’ve been members of forums and Internet websites that created communities and norms and could be called institutions, so it wasn’t just a shattering. It might be a shattering of before. And so, you have a problem where the studies have shown that fake news is shared most often by baby boomers, but the skepticism of young people is like, “Most of this stuff, I know they’re lying to me.” And so, they’re getting better at building something so it could… Does social media have to be a form of sort of destruction or can it be a new type of life it can build?

31:21 Yuval Levin: Yeah, I certainly don’t think it has to be. I agree with you and as I argue in the chapter on that in the book, the fact that we are early in this experience is very important to remember. And I actually think that there are ways that things have gotten better in, within the last few years in our country. I, for example, I run a journal called National Affairs, I hire people out of college to be assistant editors, just about every year. Ten years ago, we were finding… When we started, we were finding things in their social media profiles that you should never, ever want your employer to see. And that made it hard for us to hire them. That frankly doesn’t happen anymore. I think today’s college students have learned how to live with social media, it doesn’t mean they don’t do that stuff. It means that they know the difference between what should be public and what should not be public.

32:40 Yuval Levin: And that’s a key part of what has become difficult in the age of social media, and I think our society is learning and adjusting and evolving around that, in ways that can help us make the best of social media and avoid the worst. That said, I think that the institutions of social media are platforms, they are native 21st century institutions, and they exist to display us and to let us express opinions, and it’s dangerous to mistake those for social institutions per se, that is, it’s dangerous to channel our social lives through institutions that are fundamentally performative. And part of what happens on Twitter, on Facebook, in other ways is that we become our own paparazzi. We hound ourselves for publicity and make it very hard for us to live our lives in ways that make the most of institutional integrity.

33:29 Yuval Levin: So, I think Twitter has been terrible for our other social institution. Twitter is a place where professionals de‐​professionalize themselves. So if you check in on Twitter now, and you follow political news, what you’ll find is professional political journalists behaving like unprofessional political journalists, right? They do their work behind a process of editing and verification, but they spend all their time outside that process making it impossible for people to tell the difference between journalism and just their latest opinion.

34:04 Yuval Levin: Journalism exists to avoid that problem. And Twitter creates that problem over and over. And I think you find in a lot of ways that the way we use social media at this point is a kind of informality machine. It breaks down forms and structures and barriers, which are what institutions do, and it makes it very hard for us to tell the difference between the public and the private. That means for the moment, that social media is very, very bad for the health of most of our core institutions. It’s bad for our political institutions, for professional institutions, even in some ways for civic and social institutions.

34:41 Yuval Levin: I don’t think it has to stay that way. As I say, I think we will evolve and learn how to use this, ’cause there are a lot of great things about social media, and we’re gonna look for ways of making the most of those while avoiding the worst of it. But at this point, I think social media is very bad for the health of our institutions.

34:58 Aaron Ross Powell: This informality machine, could we think of that, though, as just a flattening of mystique, that we all… People haven’t changed. Professional journalists have always had their opinions and they’ve always had just as many silly ideas and they’ve always gone out for drinks with their colleagues and said the kind of stuff that they’re saying on Twitter. Now, they just happen to be saying it publicly. And so, what’s happening now is that… And celebrities are a similar thing, like you have this image of this person as this amazing being, but then you see their regular stuff and you’re like, “Oh, they’re just as kind of nutty as all the rest of us.” And I can see a value in that, in flattening out that mystique and just saying like, “No, people are people and they have domain knowledge and I’m gonna listen to them, but I’m also going to recognize.”

35:51 Aaron Ross Powell: So maybe the trust that we had before the informalities was potentially a little bit misplaced. And we’re going through, you know, this is a transition period, this is a new thing. People are overreacting to things, but maybe in the long run, this is a good trend.

36:05 Yuval Levin: Well, I think that’s true in part, except that mystique is not just mystique. I think that what formalities do for us is help us tell the difference between what we ought to trust and what we should not trust. Now, there are ways that they also create false images. That’s certainly true, and mystique very often is false, but what the forms and rules of the professions do for us is help distinguish expertise from just uninformed opinion. And there is a difference, so that when we lose the ways of telling the difference, we actually make it harder for our society to have any trust in anything or anyone.

36:43 Yuval Levin: I don’t think we should trust experts blindly, but I do think that expertise is a very valuable and important thing in society. I don’t think we should trust journalist blindly, but I think the journalism that actually tries to distinguish fact from fiction, and that puts before you what is a sort of best available sense of reality is a very valuable thing. So that seeing access to those things lost by this kind of breakdown of the capacity for public confidence in these institutions is a problem, and it’s part of what creates the larger social problem that has come to define this political moment for us.

37:21 Trevor Burrus: Kind of following up on Aaron’s question, I’ve talked to few millennial friends of mine and even younger who talk about the… If you grew up at the time they did, and I’m not much older than a millennial, but that the thing you end up really hating is inauthenticity. And is there more now, the facade has gone and the mystique, you want people… You know that they’re like lying behind closed doors and they’re doing something different. Donald Trump has a Twitter account and Nixon didn’t, but if you listen to the Nixon tapes, if he would’ve had a Twitter account, it would have just been Donald Trump, I mean, him complaining about All In The Family and why are there gays on television, all the stuff that he said to his advisors, and wanting to smash media companies. So the fact that Donald Trump is actually out there saying this…

38:02 Yuval Levin: But would that have been a good thing?

38:02 Trevor Burrus: No, well, no, but maybe this transition is kind of interesting to authenticity ’cause you author your own story, so the millennial generation, the young are very keyed into this. There’s a reason why AOC is a force. The way we talk about Andrew Jackson creating populous politics, and Trump is of course part of this too, of using new media, new methods of campaigning, and him getting out there and making a lot of people offended of the old guard the way that he actually ran for office. Well, now we have AOC cooking dinner and having 100,000 people watch her and answering questions and everyone believes her, and then Elizabeth Warren tries to do it and it’s so cringe‐​worthy, she opens a beer and says, “I’m gonna have a beer.” Because… And the millennials just see through the inauthenticity.

38:56 Trevor Burrus: So what we’re actually doing is breaking down these institutions to build up new ones of like you need to be authentic and talk to us directly, so maybe that’s what we can get out of this.

39:05 Yuval Levin: Well, so this gets really to a very deep point, I think. Authenticity, there’s a tendency in American culture, and it’s not new, to understand authenticity as directness, to think of mediation as inauthentic. And it seems to me that mediation is essential for formation. If we need to be better than we start out being, then we need institutions that change us somehow, and the ways in which they change us in part are by establishing certain kinds of norms and structures and forms and, sure, some of that is pretending, right? We pretend to be a better person in front of our kids, but you know what, we’ve actually become a better person over time by doing that. At least it seems to me that that’s the case. This is a sort of Aristotelian way of thinking about how moral habits are formed. If you just follow the rule for long enough, you will eventually be the kind of person that that rule wants to see in the world.

40:06 Yuval Levin: And so I think that these forms and structures that do mediate between people and they do give us the impression that this professional behaves a certain way. Even though if we just knew that guy, he’s just a guy, everybody. Sure, that’s true, but I think that those forms of mediation, those ways of creating forms between ourselves and the people we need to trust are very important and they’re not inauthentic, they’re formative, they are ways of changing us, so it’s true they don’t just display what we are now and in that sense, they’re not just authenticity, they’re not just, “This is what I am,” but they create a set of behaviors and attitudes that if you’re going to be President of the United States, you ought to display before the country. You probably ought to have them too. That wouldn’t hurt, but I… Not everybody’s going to, right, and no one is always going to.

40:57 Yuval Levin: But it does matter that there are certain ways of behaving that are appropriate to certain roles we play in institutions. I think the question, given the role I have here, how should I behave, is the core institutional question, and is the great unasked question of American life in this moment. The people who drive us most crazy are probably the people who just don’t ask that question before they act, and the people we tend to trust and look up to are people who really seem to ask that question first, as a president, as a member of Congress, as…

41:31 Trevor Burrus: As a lawyer, as a journalist…

41:33 Yuval Levin: As a lawyer, as a journalist, right, as a teacher, as a principal, as a military officer, how should I behave here, how should I make this particular judgment. That question is very important and it’s not about authenticity exactly.

41:46 Trevor Burrus: You may wanna eat with your hands, but there’s a reason you eat with a knife and fork.

41:48 Yuval Levin: That’s right.

41:49 Trevor Burrus: And if you just decide I want to eat with my hands all the time, people would be, “Why are you doing this?”

41:52 Yuval Levin: That’d be real authentic, but not ideal.

41:56 Aaron Ross Powell: How do we set about fixing this, then? Because a lot of these institutions, we keep saying institutions just as this kind of free‐​standing concept, but what matters is all of the individual ones and a lot of them like… So Congress seems pretty broken, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of will to fix it because it’s broken on the inside, but the ways that that manifests outside the voters seem to eat up. That religion is certainly an institution, but secularization is increasing, and that trend’s probably not going to change. So we’re not gonna re‐​institute. Like, everyone goes to their Catholic parish.

42:42 Aaron Ross Powell: Academia has its problems, but also seems to be… Perhaps declining as a cultural force plus there are strong arguments that maybe too many people are going to college, at all, so they should, it should decline. So it seems like there’s… The one way to approach it is to try to fix the existing institutions, but another way to approach it would be to say we want institutions to fulfill the following purposes, how can we build new ones that don’t suffer from these other problems or aren’t in kind of the inevitable decline. And I assume the answer is a combination of both…

43:17 Yuval Levin: Yeah, sure, and the book is called A Time to Build rather than A Time to Rebuild, because I think that this is a moment that does require some new institutions, and that we need to think in those terms when we think about how to solve the problems we have. But look, I would say the purpose of writing a book like this is to try to help surface the problem in these terms, to help people see that it has this institutional facet to it, because that is a place where we might be able to do something each of us, not just stand around and wait for a social revolution or a religious revival or whatever it is you think might solve this problem, not wait for something that’s impossible for you to effectuate, but to begin with, just ask yourself that question, given my role here, how should I behave?

43:55 Yuval Levin: I think if each of us were more in the habit of asking that and of expecting other people to ask that before we will buy their product or vote for them, or put our kids in their school, then you could gradually have this effect from the bottom up in ways that try to help people address this problem in terms of institutional integrity. It also requires reform, and it requires new institutional formation. That too, I think, demands that we see this problem in these terms. So if you talk to members of Congress, they tend not to think in terms of institutional reform. They just don’t, they all complain about their jobs, they basically all hate their jobs from what I can tell, but they don’t really think about what to do about that.

44:40 Yuval Levin: So the budget process doesn’t give them anything to do, but if you say to them, “Well, you can change the budget process on your own. You just need a majority of this House to change the budget process,” they know that at an intellectual level, but they’re not at work trying to make that happen. I think if we think about the challenges our institutions face in terms of institutional integrity and structure, we might be a little bit more inclined to look for ways to reform them in ways that would encourage this kind of sense of responsibility and ownership and would help people see themselves as insiders acting, not as outsiders complaining, and so gradual incrementally might do something.

45:22 Yuval Levin: I’m not arguing for a big social revolution. I don’t think it would help much to argue for that. I’m arguing for small incremental bottom‐​up changes that help us strengthen our institutions.


45:41 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening, if you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/​freethoughtspodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @freethoughtspod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.